Lucky.

The other day, I realized I was happy. When the feeling visited me, I wasn’t doing anything particularly remarkable. I was sitting on my patio, reading a novel, drinking tea, the summer sun sinking low on the horizon, and I looked up and saw a monarch butterfly alight on the hedge near my outstretched foot. And as I watched her pause there, briefly, I realized something that was remarkable:  in that moment, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. And I thought to myself:  I am lucky.

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I have spent years chasing that elusive thing that people call “happiness.” Running off to Europe or running into therapy. Retreating to island hideaways in the South Pacific or in the Pacific Northwest. Trying every diet, every exercise regimen, every “feel good” prescription from self-help books to spiritual counseling to many, many failed attempts at mindfulness and meditation.

At times, I found that thing that I was seeking. I found it in the breach of a Humpback whale in the sapphire waters off Maui; or at the top of Malá Strana, gazing down with wonder on the red tiled rooftops of Prague; or in the cards of an eighty-six-year-old Tarot reader named Miss Irene in the back of a Voodoo shop in New Orleans.

But whenever those moments came, I always had the sense that – beautiful as they were – they weren’t meant to last. I had worked so hard to chase them down that it was almost as though I brought them into existence by the sheer force of my own will. And then, as quickly as they arrived, they were gone. Inevitably, the old familiar ache and its accompanying emptiness returned, followed by the persistent question, “Why don’t I feel any better?”

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I suppose that when I finally stopped running, I did so out of sheer exhaustion. I was tired of working so hard with so little to show for it. And I was tired of trying to fake it to make it. As my therapist told me, “Sarah, sometimes, there are situations in life that can’t be fixed. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.”

Shortly thereafter – after said beloved therapist took a new job and relocated to Oregon (sob) – life handed me just that:  the opportunity to do nothing. To take a break, to slow down, and to take some real time off. And I took it. And it is in this pause that I found something I wasn’t able to find in all of the running and searching and seeking:  I found comfortable footing upon the ground of uncertainty. I found that sometimes, it’s O.K. to be lost.

As I finish this blog post, I’m sitting on the patio of my one-bedroom bungalow on Cashio Street, the sunset casting its tangerine glow on the terra cotta tiles beneath my bare feet. I love this little cottage, love the way it fell into my lap when I needed it the most, love the way its four walls have sheltered me and kept me safe, allowing me to rebuild after everything around me had been smashed and shattered. But I also know – as I have always known – that this isn’t a forever place. It’s merely a rest stop on the way to something better.

But for now, for this moment, everything is perfect. Everything is exactly what I need. And the knowledge that I can be so at peace with not knowing what’s coming next, that I don’t need to know, is the biggest indicator of all that something powerful within me has begun to shift. And I wonder if maybe the thing that I was searching for so intently wasn’t happiness, after all. Maybe the thing that I was searching for was faith.  Not faith in the traditional, religious sense, but instead, faith in myself. Faith that no matter the challenge or change, I’ll be able to meet it head on. Faith that, after having been through the storm, and after having come out the other side, I’m stronger than I was before. Faith that no matter what happens, I’ll be O.K.

Until next time, friends.

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Wanderlust.

“Why don’t more people live on Maui?”

My brother-in-law poses this question to my sister and I as we sit, sipping Mai Tais, on the patio of an oceanfront bar in Kihei. Our faces pointed toward the Pacific, we admire the soft sandy beach, the sunlight glinting on topaz water, the crisscrossing cluster of palm trees extending into a clear blue sky that’s increasingly tinged with fuchsia and tangerine as the late afternoon presses on toward sunset. In the distance, someone spots a Humpback whale and restaurant patrons crane their necks to catch a glimpse of a tail fin or a water spout.

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“I mean, think about it,” he continues. “Look at all these tourists. Why don’t more of them say to themselves: This is beautiful. This is paradise. I should find a way to live here.”

We throw around some ideas. Hawaii is too expensive. Not enough jobs. Island fever. Paradise, while great for a vacation, is a little too perfect for everyday life.

Do we actually believe that, the “paradise is too perfect,” part? Do we think we should only be granted brief, idyllic respites from our otherwise stressful and crazy-making lives?  Do we secretly harbor the belief that it’s simply too self-indulgent to seek out a life of bliss? Or is the root of this belief a bit more complex? Could it be that we fear that if we actually do it – take the leap, uproot our lives, and relocate to a tropical paradise – we’ll realize that problems happen to people in “paradise” just as often as they happen to people everywhere else? After all, paradise is where we come to escape reality, not to live it, and if we make paradise home, where will we escape to then?

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Escapism has been my thing for a while now. I’ve always loved to travel, but never more so than these last few difficult years, when hopping on a plane to somewhere – anywhere – consistently holds more appeal than the here and now. While I think it’s too reductive to classify a searching wanderer like myself as someone who’s simply “running away,” there is some truth in it. I look toward each new voyage with hopeful eyes, wondering if this trip will be the trip: the magic cure-all that changes everything. Of course, it never quite works out that way.

My sojourn on Maui was no different. Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful for both the time I spent there, and for the suitcase full of memories I returned with. The island was stunning, the weather warm, the vegetation lush, the food scrumptious, the ocean soothing, the time spent with family happy. But in the spirit of the old “wherever you go, there you are,” cliché, real life intervened. I had work on my mind, with the deadline to finish the second draft of my play War Stories looming large. The family dynamic – never free from complication – was especially complicated on this trip. And whether it was jet lag or anxiety or some mixture of both, I couldn’t sleep, spending several nights awake for hours on end, leaving me tired and short-tempered the next day. Wherever you go, there you are.

I’m about to embark upon an interesting experiment, one I’m not sure if I’m ready for. My contract job is all but over, and then the future is mine, to make of it what I will. A prospect that is both exhilarating and terrifying. I’ve been craving this type of free, unstructured time for so long, craving it the way I crave my next vacation, but I can’t help but worry that, like my recent trip to Maui – like every trip, really – it can’t possibly live up to the hype.

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The immediate future will be busy. In June, I’m producing War Stories at Hollywood Fringe Festival, and the spring will be filled with rewrites, rehearsals, production meetings, marketing, mixers, and (hopefully) an abundance of creativity and fun.

But beyond that? I don’t really know. I have lots of ideas but nothing – and I mean nothing – is set in stone. For a meticulous planner, this is uncharted territory: a future where everything is uncertain, everything transitional, everything in the wind.

Which also leaves me at a loss as to how I should end this blog post. Normally, I’d try to wrap it up with something that provides a sense of closure, something that circles back to how I began the piece, something that ties it all together in a neat, tidy bow. But I can’t do that this time, because life isn’t like that. Not right now. It’s not conducive to neat, tidy endings. It’s fluid and changeable and open-ended.

But I suppose that’s the beauty of it. I suppose that – right now – is the point.

Until next time, friends.

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Chasing happy.

Miranda: When was the last time you were happy?

Samantha: Six months ago.

Miranda: I think that’s normal for L.A.

Yes, I really did just quote the Sex and the City movie. I couldn’t help myself. Ever since it was on HBO some night a few weeks ago when I was up way too late and unable to sleep, I haven’t been able to get that scene out of my head. It’s the scene where all the girls have gathered for Charlotte’s baby shower and they’re grilling an obviously unhappy Samantha about her new life in Los Angeles. The bit of dialogue quoted above made me laugh out loud. In a, it’s funny because it’s true, kind of way.

In just a couple of weeks, I will mark sixteen years of living in Los Angeles (minus a scant five-month study abroad semester in London in the early 2000s). That’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere. And in that time, I’ve met and known and befriended a great number of people in this sprawling metropolis – some of whom still call L.A. home and some of whom have long since moved on to other places. And of my friends who still live here – other than a handful of exceptionally grounded folks who seem to have it all figured out – there aren’t many that I would describe as happy.

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Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t some hit piece on L.A., nor is it an attempt to legitimize the swarms of stereotypes that exist about this fair city – the suntans and silicone, the hot cars and hot spots, the fame seekers and the fabulously wealthy, the beautiful and the damned. No, this isn’t that type of essay. Nor is this essay even about L.A., not really. L.A. is just the place where I happen to live and therefore it’s a lens through which I view the world.

But it is my lens, and through that lens I see constant seeking and striving, struggling and searching. I see good people who are making the best of things, people who believe that better days are ahead but just can’t quite seem to get there, people whose real, unfiltered lives rarely match the glossy surfaces of their Instagram feeds. And it has left me wondering: is this sort of slow, seeping sense of dissatisfaction an L.A. thing, or is it more pervasive? Is everyone, everywhere suffering from an epidemic of, I’m not as happy as I want to be?

My obsession with the subject of happiness began nearly three years ago, when a series of tragic events left me – someone who, as a girl, my Dad teasingly called “Pollyanna” – wondering if I would ever feel joy again. Prior to this major life shift, I’d never really thought about whether or not I was happy. I moved through my days with relative ease, eyes ever on the horizon, mind focused on the next thing. If I’m honest, I didn’t do a whole lot of self-examination or press myself to answer the difficult questions. I kept going. I was fine.

Except I wasn’t. It took pain and tumult to unearth the truth. I had been living with the same sort of silent malaise that I now recognize all around me, but I had been too passive, too complacent, to do anything about it. All the while the question nagged, Is this all there is?

But recognizing that there was a problem wasn’t enough to present a solution. In fact, it got much worse before it began to get better. My lowest point came last summer, when more than once I collapsed on my bathroom floor, sobbing, unable to get up for what felt like hours. In fits of desperation, I scribbled inspirational quotes on the pages of “get well soon” cards and mailed them to myself. And I documented it all (well, not all) in blog posts that prompted worried (read: frantic) phone calls from friends.

A year later, I still wouldn’t describe myself as “happy,” but when I look back on those dark days, I do have to give myself credit for how far I’ve come. It was impossible for me to have any sense of perspective when I was “in it,” but with time and distance I can see that I really was growing and changing all along.

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For nearly three years I have been chasing this elusive thing called “happy.” Along the way, I’ve tried many different tactics in order to feel better. I’ve consulted palm and tarot readers, astrologers and spiritual counselors. I’ve traveled extensively:  to Europe, to my childhood home of Alaska, and all up and down the Western United States. I’ve talked to friends. I’ve gone into therapy. I’ve worked out obsessively, and then not at all. I threw myself into my writing. I became a mentor to a teenage girl. And I kept going, even when I didn’t feel like it. I kept going, because I didn’t feel like it.

This may seem counterintuitive, but some of the darkest moments of my life have also been bookended by some of the most joyful ones. A pair of Orca whales breaking the surface of the water in graceful arcs while I pressed my nose to the window of a ferryboat. Sitting in the warm, inviting kitchen of a friend’s home in London, drinking wine and discussing politics. Seeking refuge from a rare New Orleans ice storm in a small jazz club with my sisters while the rest of the city remained shuttered indoors. Watching the sunset settle over the ocean from the window of an open air trolley car coasting along Pacific Coast Highway, with nothing to do or nowhere to be except right there.

I think that what all these singular “happy” moments have in common is their sense of hope, their sense of possibility. A feeling they evoked, that, in the words of Shel Silverstein, “Anything can happen. Anything can be.”

Conversely, the worst, most miserable moments of my life didn’t impact me so intensely simply because I felt sad or broken, but because I felt powerless to change those feelings. I was helpless, stuck, and I couldn’t see the way out. The darkness is most unbearable when it appears unceasing, when we can’t fathom the possibility of light ever breaking through.

After nearly three years of “chasing happy,” I certainly don’t have it all figured out. But I have learned some things. I’ve learned that I feel better extending a helping hand to others than I do ruminating about my problems. I feel better using my own life as a yard stick to measure my progress, rather than comparing my achievements to someone else’s.  To that end, I feel better when I limit my time on social media.  I feel better being honest instead of making everything OK; better telling uncomfortable truths than biting my tongue. I feel better writing than not writing, better creating than not creating.  I feel better going for a run than I do sitting on my couch. I feel better moving forward than I do standing still. And I feel better trusting in the hard-won knowledge that whatever dark clouds may gather in the skies above, that they too, will pass.

Until next time, friends.

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